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Historical fiction filmed in North Dakota will get its Fargo premiere next week

"Faith Conversations" writer Roxane B. Salonen previews the Dec. 5 showing of "A Heart Like Water" at the Fargo Theatre.

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Tiffany Cornwell stars in "A Heart Like Water." Photo courtesy of Canticle Productions / Special to The Forum

BISMARCK — The Fargo premiere of “A Heart Like Water,” an historical fiction film , will be a “fun, immersive, interactive experience,” and “a glimpse into what it is like to make a true North Dakota film from the ground up,” says Daniel Bielinski, writer and producer.

Along with filmmakers from the Bismarck-based Canticle Productions being present to interact with the audience, he adds, the Fargo Theatre premiere on Dec. 5 will include a red-carpet walk with photo opportunities, along with sales of autographed copies of the screenplay and film memorabilia.

Attendees will also get a peek at “Sanctified,” the company’s next film, set to release this spring.

Bielinski founded Canticle Productions, a film and theater production company, in 2018, a couple years after he and his family moved to North Dakota from New York City, where he’d been working as a professional actor. A father who’d grown “tired of schlepping kids up and down subways,” along with the “endless moral battle of work versus values,” Bielinski says that when the University of Mary asked him to direct its theater department, the timing was right, and he quickly became drawn to telling stories that honor the history and culture of North Dakota.

“It’s been important to me to discover a voice in the work that not only honors North Dakota history, but honors God,” he says. “And not in a way that punches you in the face with a message.”

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Daniel Bielinski. Special to The Forum

Some faith-based media proves inaccessible to those who “aren’t on the wagon” of the Christian worldview.

“My goal is excellent storytelling, and then having that story come through a Christian lens,” he says. “But if we don’t check that first box first, (some) people aren’t going to pay attention.”

‘A Heart Like Water’

To the point, Bielinski says, he just got done reading “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis to his five children. “It’s such a beautifully written story, and so obviously Christian, but it’s also such a well-told, emotionally gripping and well-structured story.”

He hopes these elements flow through his work, too, he says. “‘A Heart Like Water’ is the most personal film I’ve ever made,” Bielinski says, noting that it follows the storyline of Linda Slaughter’s book, “From Fortress to Farm,” about Dakota settlers of the late 1800s. Slaughter, he adds, is Gov. Doug Burgum’s great-grandmother.

In the book, Slaughter shares about the first postmaster in Dakota Territory and her standoff with Gen. George Armstrong Custer. “There is one page we lifted out of that story that inspired the first act of the movie,” he says.

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The film’s name, he notes, comes from Lamentations 2:19: “Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint from hunger at every street corner.”

“It really examines what the struggles were on the frontier, for faith, hope and survival, and how it was all linked,” Bielinski says, told through the story of a nameless frontier couple trying to keep their family together, and their hopes alive, in 1887.

“It’s very much a meditation, and I hope it’s very gripping,” he says. “It’s also very reflective on what it means to have children on the frontier, what it means to be a parent, and what it means to endure suffering in the light of faith.”

Its relevance extends into today.

“I think we can certainly learn from the perseverance and courage and the sacrifices of those who came before us,” he says. “That was kind of the driving force of this film.”

“North Dakota has so many amazing stories,” Bielinski adds, “and they’re so much better than anything I could come up with in my imagination,” explaining his passion for adapting them to film.

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The poster for "A Heart Like Water." Courtesy of Canticle Productions / Special to The Forum

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An actor’s perspective

Tiffany Cornwell, an actress based out of the Twin Cities, and soon, Los Angeles, was immediately drawn to the script when Bielinski shared it with her. After reading it, she met up with Charlie Griak, the film’s director, at a coffee shop.

“I love Charlie’s approach to directing, so I flew out (to North Dakota) in January 2020.” After arriving in Bismarck, she got to visit the Badlands; an area she’d never seen, despite having some North Dakota heritage. “It blew my mind. It was just the most serene, perfect, January day,” she says, noting that the filming was an incredible experience.

She adds that Griak has “a unique gift of empathy that makes him a dream to work with as an actor. Because he is so empathetic, and so focused and professional, you feel entirely safe to completely immerse yourself as an actor.”

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Tiffany Cornwell films a scene in "A Heart Like Water." Photo courtesy of Canticle Productions / Special to The Forum

Cornwell’s acting career began at 3 months, she says, when she played the baby Jesus in a Christmas production, and though she started out in theater, she’s developed a real love for film.

The lead in “A Heart Like Water,” she says it took about 10 days to film. “This was one of the most scheduled, well-planned-out shoots I’ve been on. It was impressive.”

She hasn’t seen the film in whole yet. “I’ll be seeing this along with the audience for the first time on Dec. 5,” Cornwell says, noting that, based on Griak’s artistic abilities, she’s certain it will be beautiful. “In many ways, I expect it will feel like watching a painting in action.”

Cornwell especially looks forward to seeing the audience’s reactions, and viewing the film in an iconic space, she says. “There’s just something about watching something that is entertainment and art… and then also, to have that in a beautiful frame.”

A costumer’s perspective

Because most of her work as a costumer comes in pre-production research and planning, Michele Renner isn’t always on set. But during a recent filming in Medora, she says, she drove one of the out-of-area visitors to the filming site, impressing him with a buffalo sighting.

“I was born in Dickinson,” she says, later leaving the area for quite a few years before eventually circling back after “falling in love with a North Dakota guy,” her husband.

Though Renner has worked in theater for 25 years in a variety of roles, she says, her latest as a costumer came from a need she discovered in the Bismarck area, and her skills as a seamstress, along with being able to look at the big picture.

A Catholic, Renner says she appreciates Bielinski’s strong work ethic, respectful communication and faith sensitivities, such as ensuring the crew can take time to worship when filming on weekends.

“There’s also definitely a work ethic that exists within the production company, too, where you do what needs to get done to get the production off the road; to get it going,” she says.

Renner also appreciates that Bielinski’s films, while not overtly didactic, have a moral component, describing “A Heart Like Water” as “a touching story of a man and a woman who, if they didn’t have this faith, there’s no way they would have survived what they survived.”

‘A rightly-ordered universe’

Until recently, Bielinski acted in most of his films, he says, but he’s backing away from that now to focus on writing and producing.

“Finding the right stories to tell, I’m grateful to be in the position to do that, and then to frame them in the context of a rightly-ordered universe in a way that will give glory to God.”

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A behind-the-scenes look at filming on "A Heart Like Water." Photo courtesy of Canticle Productions / Special to The Forum

Bielinski says he’s hoping to show the film to as many people across the state as possible.

“I’ve been to Fargo a few times, and think it’s a great town. I’m hoping we can get lots of people into the theater that evening.”

Follow the film’s updates at www.facebook.com/aheartlikewater .

If you go

What: “A Heart Like Water” film premiere and red-carpet event; Q&A with filmmakers

When: showings at 7 and 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5

Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway N.

Contact: Tickets are $20; visit https://www.aheartlikewater.com/ or email tickets@canticle-productions.com

Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.

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Roxane Salonen, Forum columnist.

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